By Beppe Colli
Feb. 11, 2013
As I argued at length in my review, the new
album by Welsh trio Godsticks, The Envisage Conundrum, presents quite a
few interesting traits: complex and varied, but in the end quite accessible;
definitely "hard-sounding", while at the same time possessing
more than a few undeniable "pop" hooks; a "neo-Prog" album
dressed in "metal" clothing; all in all, a strange, surprising
Wanting to learn more, I got in touch with
Darran Charles, who besides being the group's guitar player and singer
also plays keyboards, while writing the bulk of the group's material.
Charles agreed to answer my questions, which
he did in the course of last week. The interview was conducted by e-mail.
First things first: What does the name
of your group - Godsticks - mean? It appears that this word is not included
in any dictionary I own. (I also checked Wikipedia...)
I believe "Godsticks" are Maori
implements of worship. My wife Rhiannon came up with the name when we gave
her the exhaustive task of looking for a band name that hasn't been used
The name of the new album is The Envisage
Conundrum. Both words - Envisage and Conundrum - are clear to me when
it comes to their meaning, but it's their combination that looks quite
open-ended to me... Is there anything you'd like to say here?
I'm very interested in the English language,
and also in surreal comedy! So sometimes, when I quickly have to come up
with a song title for a work-in-progress, I tend to put words together
that usually don't belong with one another. Some of the working titles
were quite bizarre, for example: "Teflon Blanket", "Shoes",
and "I'm not pregnant, but it is yours".
The fact that the album and song titles are
open-ended is a side benefit. Like a lot of musicians/artists, I'm keen
for the listener to interpret the lyrics and music as they so wish. From
a personal point of view, I don't really like it when other artists describe
what their exact intentions were, regardless of the medium they're using:
it sort of spoils the experience a little (in my opinion). Maybe that's
why I like David Lynch films, as I generally have no idea what's going
on in them!
From what I can tell, recording and mixing
the new album was a complex effort, and I'm sure a lot of time (and money!)
was spent in order to achieve what you had in mind. The vocal layers,
especially, are quite dense, yet clear, which I'm sure was something
not easily achieved. Would you mind talking about this part of the process?
The vocal harmonies are probably the
"fun" part of composing for me. It's interesting to see what harmony
parts you can weave in and out of the main melody line. I'm also a fan of
the close harmonies in country music, as well the Bulgarian choir that produced
Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares: both are probably a subconscious inspiration.
The credit has to go to our producer Joe
Gibb for layering the harmonies and giving the parts that all important
clarity. Whilst the mixing process was long and extremely frustrating at
times, it's easy to forget what a difficult job we gave him. There's a
hell of a lot going on in these tracks sometimes, but it's absolutely vital
for everything to balance perfectly and not get in the way of one another
- which is an easy thing to say, but not necessarily to execute!
Thanks to personal websites and the like,
nowadays one doesn't really need an interview to know about artists'
works and their careers. However, I'm really curious to know if you -
also the other members of the trio, of course - are self-taught, or did
you attend a school of some sort? (This includes, of course, the great
abundance of "instructional videos" and the like.)
Well, Steve is self-taught both on piano
and drums and he's arguably a virtuoso on both!
Even though technically you could say I'm
self-taught, I've learnt loads though instructional guitar magazines and
videos, and I also attended the Guitar Institute in London part-time. I
still take piano lessons, and still practise, study and transcribe every
day in order to continually evolve as a player and writer. My routine hasn't
changed since I was a teenager!
Dan had bass lessons I believe, and like
me he's always studying and transcribing. He's just began learning piano
Nowadays it looks like when it comes to
music the hope of "having a career" - not to mention "making
it" - is no longer a realistic aspiration, especially if one plays
"complex music". On the other hand, one is sure to spend quite
a lot of money - buying instruments, recording gear, and the like - with
no real hope to recoup. So is "the calling" to be a musician still
I think the ability to make a living as a
musician has been practically decimated over the last 10 years, mainly
due to the seismic changes in the record industry, coupled with advancement
of music-making technology. The bar for success is higher than ever and
very few seem able to reach it.
Thanks to computer sequencers and cheap recording
equipment, it's very easy to record a song and even an album at home these
days. For professional session musicians, this means they are no longer
in demand as they once were, and for original bands means that it's very
difficult to stand out from the crowd because the market is saturated with
new bands and new music. There are many positives and negatives to speak
of, so it's impossible to say whether I think it's a good or bad thing.
In regards to "the calling": I
haven't really thought about why I write music, but I've never been in
a covers band so playing other people's music has never really interested
me (unless it's a Frank Zappa cover!). It would be a dream come true to
be able to make a living from writing and performing music but unfortunately,
without my day job I could not afford to do any of this. However, every
single penny we make goes back into the band, and usually on gear!
I have one question about the topic of
performing skills: In the past, music was always the product of performing
abilities of specific people - even those "manufactured groups" from
the 60s were based on real recordings made by real musicians, so even
listeners who were fond of "unadventurous" types of music could,
in the end, develop a taste for "human-made" timbre and technique.
Nowadays, however, a lot of music is "machine-made", so it
"performance-based music" does not benefit from "extra points",
so to speak. What's your point of view?
That's a very interesting question. What
immediately springs to mind with using computer-generated music (drums
especially), is the lack of dynamics. This is where human beings excel.
Sometimes a drummer might hit a snare harder in the chorus than he did
in the verse, or the guitarist may mute a chord in one bar and let it ring
out in another - all of these idiosyncratic things are associated with
a real performing musician and often give the song its "feel".
There's nothing wrong with computer generated
music but my personal preference is that it's balanced with real musicians
- fundamentally, a drummer and bass player. For instance, I like some Rap
music and I remember recently watching a rap artist with a full band behind
him: it sounded a million times better than the album.
I don't know how you define the music
Godsticks play - not that it really matters, of course, but just for
convenience's sake. Anyway, it has been said that in many cases - say,
Jazz - nowadays a "genre" is played by musicians who are, as
a rule, younger than their audience. (Here the Marsalis brothers, at
the time of their
"raise to fame", come to mind.) What kind of people do you see
at your concerts, age-wise?
It's very difficult to define what kind of
music we play, much like it would be difficult to define what kind of music
we enjoy listening to. Our music is generally as varied as our influences
which range from Frank Zappa to ELP, and Rufus Wainwright to Alison Krauss.
If I had to label us it would be "progressive pop" but I'm sure
there are many interpretations of the style of music we play. As you said,
it doesn't really matter but from a marketing point a view, the fact we
can't be pigeon-holed can be very problematic sometimes!
Age-wise, our audience is quite varied but
because we've not done a full headline tour, the audience age is often
determined by the band we're supporting. For example, when we supported
Focus the crowd was predominantly over-50, but when we toured with The
Pineapple Thief and The Aristocrats the audience age was between 18 - 50.
Hope my next question makes sense to you:
I've read the group is from Wales. Do you perceive your work as a composer
to be linked - in musical climates, or topics - more strongly to Wales
and the Welsh heritage? Or do you see it as being "place-neutral"?
Place-neutral definitely. Personally, I couldn't
care less about nationality, and the great thing about music is that it
generally transcends those boundaries.
Silly question, maybe: Favourite guitar
player, singer, and composer (with, or without, a guitar).
I'm going to create a few other categories
Biggest guitar influence: Shaun Baxter
Favorite guitar player: Steve Vai pre-1991
Composer: Frank Zappa
Favorite Male Singer: Rufus Wainwright
Favorite Female Singers: Alison Krauss, Norah
I'm sure the new album is still fresh
in your mind, and already there are concerts to play. What do people
who'll attend your concerts have to expect when it comes to the new songs
as performed on stage? Will you have a flesh-and-blood choir appear with
you, some very good effects, or...
I think anyone who's witnessed us play live
before is in for a very different experience this time around. Our intention
in the past has been to try and emulate what was played on the album and
consequently we tended to over-rely upon backing tracks, which we don't
particularly like doing.
For future live shows however, we've arranged
the music (both from the new album and Spiral Vendetta) to fit the band
and we definitely feel more freedom on stage as a result.
We use loads of guitar effects but I think
the "pedal-board tap-dancing" adds to the visual spectacle as
well as augmenting the overall sound. We also use a vocal-harmony pedal
and sometimes a synth backing track. But our over-reliance on backing-tracks
is definitely a thing of the past because it does not make for an entertaining
live show - for us or the audience.
All 3 of us take keyboard duties as some
point during the set so I think the sense of fun that we have on stage
will now be translated to the audience somewhat.
© Beppe Colli 2013
CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 11, 2013